As I write this the church, or more accurately one priest, is embroiled in a media frenzy about a post on his blog. Fr Ed Tomlinson wrote about the increasing number of funerals he is asked to take in which Christianity is something of an add-on in a post entitled ‘The death of death’.
Now I ought, for the purposes of full disclosure, say now that I know Fr Ed a little – friend of a friend. As a taste of what caused all the fuss, here is an extract from the offending post:
“…it has become painfully obvious that many families I have conducted funerals for have absolutely no desire for any Christian content whatsoever. I have then stood at the Crem like a lemon, wondering why on earth I am present at the funeral of somebody led in by the tunes of Tina Turner, summed up in pithy platitudes of sentimental and secular poets and sent into the furnace with ‘I did it my way’ blaring out across the speakers! To be brutally honest I can think of a hundred better ways of spending my time as a priest…”
This is one of the quotes that you may have read in the national press, who picked it up from the local paper, and it is easy to see why this might cause a stir. Certainly The Times, The Daily Mail, The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph felt it warranted a good few column inches.
It perhaps goes without saying that the content of the original post by Fr Ed was in no way as bad as the edited highlights in the papers suggested, or indeed the quote I have used above. It was however a piece that left me a little cold. There was a lack of warmth and compassion that spoke of a kind of Christianity that has, by and large, gone out of favour in the Church of England.
One of the privileges of being a priest in the C of E is that you tend to be the default choice for people who are not necessarily ‘church people’, but find themselves in need of religion. These times are not limited to funerals, but include weddings and baptisms as well as other times of joy and sorrow.
I have always seen the job of the priest on these occasions to speak something of God into the situation, to point to the hope and love that faith provides, regardless of the music that is requested and without any comment on taste. The service (be it baptism, wedding or funeral) is not about me, and the way I approach them is always with the model of a servant leader, something I promised I would strive to be at my ordination.
The ‘extreme’ example of an entirely secular funeral might feel a little odd for me to take, and I don’t honestly know what I would do if such a request were made – perhaps ask the family if they were sure a Christian priest was what they wanted if they required no religious input at all. That said, in just over ten years of ministry I have never been asked to lead such a service.
Suffice to say that I will still strive to offer myself to the community I serve, and to try and point to God’s presence in all life’s joys and woes.